Henry Cavendish, British Scientist


Elected to Royal Society in 1760, his first publication in its Philosophical Transactions - 'Factitious Airs' - was not to come for another 6 years. However, unpublished records show he was way ahead of his time. He conducted 'Experiments on Arsenic' in 1764, and more experiments on the evolution of heat accompanying solidification and condensation the following year. Other discoveries included the determination of the specific gravity of carbon dioxide, and the demonstration that it could stop a flame burning in common air. Cavendish discovered nitric acid (HNO3), and proved that water was not an element but made up of gases. He searched for phlogiston - the combustible element in all materials - and determined it to be hydrogen; it would not be until the end of the century that Lavoisier's theories regarding oxygen would gain common acceptance.

British Broadcasting Corporation

He did not love; he did not hate; he did not hope; he did not fear; he did not worship as others do. He separated himself from his fellow men, and apparently from God. There was nothing earnest, enthusiastic, heroic, or chivalrous in his nature, and as little was there anything mean, grovelling, or ignoble. He was almost passionless. All that needed for its apprehension more than the pure intellect, or required the exercise of fancy, imagination, affection, or faith, was distasteful to Cavendish. An intellectual head thinking, a pair of wonderfully acute eyes observing, and a pair of very skilful hands experimenting or recording, are all that I realise in reading his memorials. His brain seems in have been but a calculating engine; his eyes inlets of vision, not fountains of tears; his hands instruments of manipulation which never trembled with emotion, or were clasped together in adoration, thanksgiving, or despair; his heart only an anatomical organ, necessary for the circulation of the blood…

Cavendish did not stand aloof from other men in a proud or supercilious spirit, refusing to count them his fellows. He felt himself separated from them by a great gulf, which neither they nor he could bridge over, and across which it was vain to stretch hands or exchange greetings. A sense of isolation from his brethren, made him shrink from their society and avoid their presence, but he did so as one conscious of an infirmity, not boasting of an excellence. He was like a deaf mute sitting apart from a circle, whose looks and gestures show that they are uttering and listening to music and eloquence, in producing or welcoming which he can be no sharer. Wisely, therefore, he dwelt apart, and bidding the world farewell, took the self-imposed vows of a Scientific Anchorite, and, like the Monks of old, shut himself up within his cell. It was a kingdom sufficient for him, and from its narrow window he saw as much of the Universe as he cared to see. It had a throne also, and from it he dispensed royal gifts in his brethren. He was one of the unthanked benefactors of his race, who was patiently teaching and serving mankind, whilst they were shrinking from his coldness, or mocking his peculiarities. . .He was not a Poet, a Priest, or a Prophet, but only a cold, clear Intelligence, raying down pure white light, which brightened everything on which it felt, but warmed nothing-a Star of at least the second, if not of the first magnitude, in the Intellectual Firmament.

George Wilson, 1851












Internet Resources

What it shows: The gravitational attraction between lead spheres. The data from the demonstration can also be used to calculate the universal gravitational constant G.
Harvard University
He was the son of Lord Charles Cavendish and grandson of the 2d duke of Devonshire. He was a recluse, and most of his writings were published posthumously. His great contributions to science resulted from his many accurate experiments in various fields.
Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition
He is generally credited with having discovered hydrogen, since he had described the density of 'inflammable air', which formed water on combustion, in a paper On Factitious Airs that appeared in 1766.
He conducted 'Experiments on Arsenic' in 1764, and more experiments on the evolution of heat accompanying solidification and condensation the following year.
Cavendish's experiments included the investigation of capacitance. In his experiments, he measured the strength of a current by shocking himself and estimating the magnitude of the pain.
Eric Weisstein
Many of the characteristics that distinguished Cavendish are almost pathognomic of Asperger's syndrome: a striking literalness and directness of mind, extreme single-mindedness, a passion for calculation and quantitative exactitude…
Oliver Sacks
Includes biographical information on Cavendish, and images of pages from Three Papers, containing Experiments on factitious Air, and Experiments to determine the Density of the Earth.
Manhattan Rare Book Company
A contemporary physicist, who at my request read Cavendish's manuscript on the theory of heat, wrote to me of his reaction: I am extremely surprised and impressed by what I read... It seems to me that he got the nature of heat essentially right.
Russell McCormmach

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